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Government agencies would gain greater freedom to wiretap electronic communications under legislation being pushed by the Bush administration and U.S. Senate in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks on the United States. At a news conference on Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the administration was putting together a package of legislation to increase the government’s surveillance capabilities. Specifically, he said the legislation would allow wiretaps to be authorized for an individual rather than a phone number, as is currently done, and enable a single wiretap approval to cover all jurisdictions. He is requesting that Congress enact the legislation this week. The Senate has already moved to broaden the government’s wiretap capabilities. Last Thursday the Senate passed the “Combating Terrorism Act of 2001″ by voice vote. The bill would allow a wiretap to be authorized in a wider range of circumstances and enable U.S. Attorneys to approve a wiretap. Currently such authorization is limited to judges and deputy assistant attorney generals. The measure was introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and six other senators. It passed as an amendment to a government funding bill despite the strong objections of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Maybe the Senate wants to just go ahead and adopt new abilities to wiretap our citizens. Maybe they want to adopt new abilities to go into people’s computers,” Leahy said. “But do we really show respect to the American people by slapping something together, something that nobody on the floor can explain?” “If we are going to change habeas corpus, change our rights as Americans, if we are going to change search and seizure provisions, if we are going to give new rights for state investigators to come into federal court to seek remedies in the already overcrowded federal court, fine, the Senate can do that,” Leahy said. “But what have we done to stop terrorism and to help the people in New York and the survivors at the Pentagon?” It’s not clear yet whether the legislation will spur litigation from privacy watchdog groups. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading cyber-rights group, said it is watching congressional efforts in the wake of last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, but has not decided on a course of action. “There are all sorts of things that got stuck in [to the wiretap rider] that have nothing to do with terrorism,” said Cindy Cohn, the EFF’s legal director. For example, she said, the measure would allow wiretaps to be authorized against people who commit low-level computer trespass. Such activities, she said, are “the electronic equivalent of bouncing a check.” “We need to have a careful and reasoned debate, not panicked legislation,” Cohn said.

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